08-04-14

Commuting — and Connecting — Along a Crooked River

by Justin Glanville

For more information about upcoming trips and to learn how to support the Crooked River Commute, please contact David Jurca at djurca@kent.edu or (216) 357-3438.

My kayak’s bow splashes quietly through the river, my knuckles skimming the surface with each paddle. The water feels warmer than I expected, almost welcoming.

It doesn’t smell bad, either — just a mild mix of mud and ripe, midsummer leaves. This is a surprise in the infamous Cuyahoga River, once so polluted it caught fire repeatedly. Its last blaze, in 1969, got so much attention it inspired the federal Clean Water Act.

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Group paddling in sunlight

chris up front still water

A few yards ahead, a great blue heron launches itself into flight. Its long legs and wings look lazy and graceful at once.

“You think that’s the same one we’re seeing over and over?” I ask.

David Jurca, Associate Director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC) and organizer of the trip, nods. “It’s probably mad we keep scaring it off.”

We keep paddling. Conversation has been coming and going like this since we put in near downtown Kent early that morning. It starts and stops like the heron, the silences as comfortable as the talk.

It’s sometime in the afternoon now, to judge from the force of the sun. I adjust the brim of my baseball cap to block the strongest rays from the side of my face.

sun shining facing paddlers

There are seven of us on the Cuyahoga on a Friday in July. It’s the first day of the first-ever Crooked River Commute, a two-day voyage from Kent to downtown Cleveland sponsored by the CUDC, a satellite urban design center of Kent State University. The trip is intended to bring attention to the Cuyahoga as the ecological heart of Northeast Ohio — and, despite its history, a viable and safe place to have a little outdoor fun.

big green river with small red kayak

dog and kayak

It turns out you can be on this water and survive. Not only that, you can immerse yourself in an alternate and somehow deeper reality, one that removes you from the usual culturally-imposed signifiers of time and place while connecting you to another set of natural ones.

So that when you step out of the river 50 miles later, at the southern shore of Lake Erie with Cleveland’s skyscrapers in the background, you feel changed in ways you can’t describe without sounding a little dumb.

“I feel like an alien,” I say. “Like, from a spaceship.”

Everyone grins, seeming to know exactly what I mean.

 *        *        *

 

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On a map, the Cuyahoga doesn’t make much sense. It runs for 85 miles but drains into Lake Erie only 15 miles further north of its headwaters in Geauga County.

This inefficiency is why the Native Americans called the river Cuyahoga — thought to mean “crooked.” It’s also the reason they could use the river to reach both Lake Erie and the Ohio River — via a portage over to the Little Cuyahoga and then the Tuscarawas.

To understand how the river ended up looking like this, you have to go back about 20,000 years, to the time of the glaciers. The Cuyahoga got its crazy U-shape from a glacial meltwater combining with more ancient river valleys.

Even now, a lot of drama accompanies the two rammed-together sections. At Cuyahoga Falls, the river becomes histrionic, with a waterfall and Class IV (expert-level) rapids dropping some 280 feet.

Sheraton Falls

The river’s turn also marks a big shift in water quality. Before reaching the metro Akron area, the Cuyahoga is fairly pristine, teeming with fish and smelling of fresh green things. After Akron, things get murkier.

Yes, “murky” is a euphemism. Akron still releases about 2 billion gallons of combined untreated sewage and stormwater into the river each year. This mostly occurs during big storm events when the region’s stormwater and wastewater lines mix. (Cleveland is grappling with the same overflow issues, but focusing more on Lake Erie, the eventual destination of its sewage.)

CSO halo on Charles

But it would be oversimplifying to say the Cuyahoga is two rivers. It’s an infinite number, its course and characteristics differing from section to section and day to day.

First, there are the widely varying use patterns along the river. The upper Cuyahoga flows through mostly rural Geauga County. Once the river hits Kent, though, industrialization and urbanization intensify in an almost unbroken crescendo. By the time the river outflows into Lake Erie, some 55 miles later, it looks not so much like a natural watercourse as a cog in an awe-inspiring industrial machine. (More on that below.)

At all points, you can read what’s happening on the banks above even when you can’t see anything but trees. As we approached Akron, for example, we saw a looming square shape in the water ahead — not a rock, as I’d first assumed, but a mud-caked shopping cart.

And yes, we definitely smelled the Akron treatment plant. Perhaps even more disturbing than the smell of the sewage itself was the treated water as it re-entered the river: A hint of laundry detergent on the air, soap-like white bubbles floating on the water’s surface. It begged the question: What exactly do we consider “clean” water? (Learn more about the water reclamation process here.)

akron soapy water

Then there are the whims of weather and nature. For we Crooked River Commuters, the water was particularly low — flowing at about 280 cubic feet per second (cfs) at our put-in point in downtown Kent. By comparison, the river can run close to 1,000 cfs or higher during wet periods.

On the positive side, this meant water quality was likely better than normal, as storms lead to sewer overflows.

But it also meant our kayak bottoms skimmed the riverbed a lot, slowing our progress. In other places, ordinarily gentle bends in the river moved faster, more unpredictably, more dangerously.

*        *        *

 

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cvnp morning ben

cvnp morning instant coffee

A hush falls over our little party of kayakers as we paddle through a twisty part of the river somewhere north of Brecksville. It’s the second morning of our trip after an overnight stay at a primitive campsite in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We’d portaged around Brecksville Dam, a low-level dam that’s one of the main obstacles to an unobstructed paddle down the river.

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Chris Maurer, a freelance architect and instructor at Kent State, has slowed his pace. “Hold up,” he calls. He’s the most experienced Crooked River Commuter and our unofficial leader and scout.

We all know what that means: Trickiness ahead. We slow down, hearing the telltale riffling sound of swift-moving water somewhere in the near distance.

Chris dips his paddle to the right and rudders into the bend. As we get closer, we see what he’s warning us about. A fallen sycamore tree, angled across one corner of the bend so that the current rushes straight toward it.

He enters the rapid, maneuvering his bow away from the tree’s trunk — but not too far. That could cause a tailspin.

But the current’s too strong. The water takes over, slamming his boat straight into the tree. The kayak becomes pinned against the trunk, dumping Chris into the churning water.

The rest of us tense. “Chris!” someone calls.

He’s still under — for what feels like an eternity.

Meanwhile, Jeff Kerr, a landscape architect at Akron-based Environmental Design Group and co-chair of the Cuyahoga River Water Trail Partners, doesn’t have time to stop himself from entering the rapid. We all hold our breaths. He hacks through the current with his paddle, managing to keep himself a safe distance from the tree.

Finally, after a few seconds, Chris’s head reappears, a few yards upriver from his still-pinned kayak.

I and the other four remaining kayakers step into the river — only a few feet deep here. We drag our boats onto a rocky shoal to portage around the rapid.

Then we return to Chris, whose boat is still plastered against the strainer. He fights the current to get back to it. We try forming a human chain, holding hand to hand, to pull the boat free. It doesn’t work: The current feels like it has the force of a dozen fire hoses. We’ll have to work with it rather than against it.

Chris hoists himself to stand on top of the boat. He clings to some branches and pushes down with his feet, trying to force it into the water below. The rest of us watch, helpless, from the shore, shouting suggestions and warnings.

There’s a jolt, and the kayak submerges. It disappears for a moment, then a flash of yellow appears in the Coke-bottle-colored water. The boat’s free. Chris, having lost his footing, grasps the tree branches for another moment, then leaps back into the river to retrieve his boat.

A minute later, we’re paddling north again. The mood is celebratory: We’ve escaped the situation with our persons and boats intact, all of us thanking Chris for taking the fall.

“What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you on a kayak?” I ask.

He considers the question stoically. “I’ve done some bigger rapids,” he says. “But honestly? That back there is probably the most dangerous situation I’ve ever been in. Being pinned is pretty much the last thing you want to happen.”

*        *        *

 

arrival at CVNP river

Beaver on banks

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kristen paddling under bridge

bike and hike trail bridge near waterworks park

justin and ben

There’s a kind of relief, a sense of the natural order returned, in the fact that the Cuyahoga’s worst dangers are no longer in its toxicity but in the sheer force and treachery of moving water.

It’s true, though: The water quality of the river has improved markedly since that infamous 1969 fire. Even in heavily industrialized portions of the river through Akron and Cleveland, fish and insect species have returned. Long gone are the oil slicks, floating debris and unidentifiable sludge that fed so many blazes in the first half of the 20th century. (For footage of the river during this period in its history, check out the excellent 2005 documentary The Return of the Cuyahoga.)

Partly because of these improvements, the river was declared a national heritage river in 1998.

The 5-mile federal shipping channel through Cleveland remains a biological dead zone, unable to support much of any life at all. That’s less because of the river’s water quality, though, than its physical form. To allow huge freighters to pass upriver from Lake Erie to such operations as the Arcelor Mittal steel plant, the channel is dredged to a depth of 27 feet, its banks held in place by rusty steel bulkheads. These conditions prevent fish from spawning.

Community leaders are exploring more natural treatments for the shipping channel. “Green” bulkheads — non-bulkheaded treatments of the banks that hold the river’s form while also welcoming fish — seem promising. The brand-new Scranton Flats Park restores some 3,000 feet of natural shoreline to the river just south of Tower City. It also features a section of the Towpath Trail that will eventually connect Downtown Cleveland to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and beyond.

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Image source: Canalway Partners

Whatever the eventual solutions, one hopes the industrial character of the river’s last few miles remain.

Entering the shipping channel near Harvard Road, we Commuters were awed by the soaring warehouses and century-old foundries of the Arcelor Mittal steel plant (former LTV Steel). As if to aid us in our gawking, the river’s current slows almost a stand-still.

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mounds flats

jeff jacknife bridge flats

Our frame of reference zooms out to a superhuman scale. Up to this point, a few low bridges and houses had been the only visible signs of civilization on the banks above. Now, we’re in a land of industrial giants — smokestacks, freighters, dangerously slanted jackknife bridges. Surprisingly, the air smells mostly neutral, only the occasional whiff of sulfur to match the activity surrounding us.

The trees are gone, but the banks above the bulkheads remain rife with plant species, some a welcome sight and some not. Charles Frederick, a professor of architecture at Kent State, points out an invasive loosestrife, for example, but also a native hibiscus dripping an opulent burgundy blossom. (Frederick is also interim director of Kent’s new landscape architecture program, which will launch this fall.)

kayak bow and city beyond

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A huge freighter — the Buffalo — looms alongside us, a horizontal skyscraper. It’s parked at an unloading dock, its motors rumbling.

jeff large buffalo boat

Above, a giant metal claw rattles forward along an overhead track from one of the steel plant’s buildings. It dips down to retrieve raw material — presumably iron ore — before retreating hungrily backward.

Kristen Zeiber, an urban designer at the CUDC and the trip’s only female member, slows her kayak to a near halt. She’d told me this was the part of the journey she’d been most excited about: A chance to witness the city’s industrial might at close perspective. She helps David turn on his waterproof camera, which he’s mounted to the bow of his kayak. They take some panorama shots.

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There’s a palpable sense of gravitas here.

These sights remind us both of the ingenuity that made Cleveland boom, and the carelessness that almost caused it to implode. They both inspire and serve as a warning.

Whatever naturalizing of the river occurs in the future, whatever changing of the economy, I find myself hoping all this infrastructure remains.

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kayak bow and industrial background

below detroit superior

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*        *        *

 

We paddle toward the river’s artificial mouth, dug a century ago to create a more direct route for ships to Lake Erie. The skies have turned slate gray, threatening a storm.

Suddenly, a clatter rises from the western bank. It’s a group of teenage boys whaling away on handheld drums. They’re the St. Edward High School Trash Talkers, I find out later, welcoming us to our final stopping point: The Burning River Festival at Wendy Park. The bit of fanfare feels good after two days and 55 miles.

The festival, fittingly, celebrates the region’s environmental progress. It’s sponsored by Great Lakes Brewing Company, the Cleveland-based microbrewer that named one of its brews Burning River Pale Ale.

But there’s still one more tiny portion of the journey to go. We have to cross the bottom corner of Lake Erie to get to the Wendy Park beach. There, a U-Haul is waiting to take our boats back to 41 North Coastal Kayak Adventures, the rental company that donated our boats.

We’re inside the break-wall, so the waves are mild, but the water has a completely different character than on the river. Instead of goading us forward, as the Cuyahoga did, Lake Erie jostles us. In three directions, I see only open water and the stormy sky — a completely different palette from the soft greens and industrial grays we’ve seen for the rest of the trip.

We power across the water to the small beach. I can smell hot dogs and french fries from the food trucks, hear a band noodling its way through a sound check. Still, there’s something primal about disembarking on the sand, dragging our boats behind us.

We snap the requisite group photos, slap a few high-fives with friends who’ve met us on shore. Back at the U-Haul, we open and devour a bag of Doritos. Somehow, junk food has tasted extra good these past couple days, as if removing ourselves from civilization has relieved us of our guilt in consuming empty carbs and yellow number 5.

Group-shot-at-Wendy-Park

The rain finally comes, and we scatter — some of us home, some of us to a shelter at the festival.

The following week, I feel re-energized. I work with new gusto, take a little extra relish in social outings with friends. Part of it, I’m sure, was the intensity and unfamiliarity of the physical experience, the sense of accomplishment. But I also feel a new connection with where I live, with what Northeast Ohio is and was and could be. It’s a comforting feeling, and reminds me of all the research that’s been done about how people benefit from exposure to nature — how it calms us and makes us friendlier and more open.

A few days later, I’m at home talking to my partner, Dan, about recreating part of the trip.

“We should just become gross outdoorsy people,” he says.

I laugh.

“Well, why not?” he asks. “People do it in Colorado and California, right?”

“That’s true,” I say. “They’re out every weekend camping and hiking.”

“And that’s why they love living there. Why don’t we do that more? We have a national park half an hour away!”

I realize that’s exactly the point. That’s the potential for Cleveland, and for Clevelanders. Instead of altering nature, as we’ve done for centuries, we now have a chance to be altered by it.

Story by Crooked River Commuter, Justin Glanville. Justin is a writer based in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. He is the author of New to Cleveland: A Guide to (re)Discovering the City, a former AP reporter, and a recipient of the Creative Workforce Fellowship from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. You can find him online at www.JustinGlanville.com.

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